A world that is falling in love with 3D needs to know something: A different sort of 3D electrified video game players more than a decade ago. It was supposed to take over. But 2D won't die. In fact, people just might like flatter... better.
The latest 2D Mario game came out in late 2009. It is currently crushing the sales of a 3D Mario game that was released two years before it.
The big games for Nintendo's Wii this fall? They're in 2D.
Some of the most impressive and beautiful games shown at this year's E3 showcase of the hottest video games? 2D.
Gaming in 2D was supposed to be a relic.
It was so easy to believe back in the late 1990s that 2D gaming was the horse the mailman used to get a parcel out to the West, something wonderful for a time but destined for obsolescence.
The great games of the 80s and early 90s had been, mostly, in 2D. Pac-Man played on a tabletop was 2D. Donkey Kong played in a stand-up arcade machine was 2D. Super Mario Bros. and Sonic The Hedgehog games scrolled left and right, maybe up and down, all in the flatness of two dimensions. Tetris, a game about falling squares, was 2D gaming perhaps at its finest.
But in 1996 Nintendo released Super Mario 64, a Mario game in which Mario could run away from the screen, deeper into his world. This was a new kind of Mario game in which your most common view of the video game plumber was his behind rather than his side. For players, we had gone from seeing Mario from the window of an apartment to chasing him down the street.
After I played Mario 64, I figured 2D was finished. The future would be in three dimensions.
Mario's conversion from 2D star to 3D star led to the conversions of game series such as Zelda and Donkey Kong, and, later, Grand Theft Auto from 2D to 3D. They even made Tetris in 3D (on a sphere, and it was pretty good.)
The 3D versions of Mario, Zelda, and GTA were lobbed to the top of Best Games of All Time lists.
Tomb Raider directed gamers to the rear of Lara Croft. Sports games converted from 2D sprite graphics to 3D players and arenas made of polygons. Fighting games transformed from battles waged on flat planes to those set in circular arenas. First-person shooters were 3D as well of course, and all of this made it seem certain that 3D was the locomotive, the truck and the jumbo jet that made the 2D an irrelevant horse.
That's bad history. 2D is not a horse. Turns out it is a radio, a technology that its "better" couldn't make obsolete. Fighting games slumped but have been revived in the last two years by Street Fighter's return to 2D. Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter's Pepsi, is switching back from 3D to 2D as well.
In the shadow of Super Mario 64, Nintendo tried more Mario 3D games, including 2007's Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii. Through April 2010 the game has sold 4,184,000 in the U.S., according to the NPD group which tracks video game sales. Last November, Nintendo released a new 2D Mario game on the Wii. That game, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, through April 2010, has sold 6,101,000 copies. The smart money says 2D Mario is going to lap 3D Mario.
2D isn't dead. 2D is turning to its side and kicking some of 3D's ass.
About a month ago, I reviewed the most recent 3D Mario game, the superb Super Mario Galaxy 2. In my review I praised many things but lamented what I believe is a limitation of games set in three dimensions:
Under even the skilled hands of Nintendo's top creators, a Mario that can move in three dimensions, rather than two, will always be less reliable to control and more prone to imprecise player input. The 2D design in Galaxy is welcome, but it also is a reminder that some of the 3D stuff in this game and the other 3D Marios is tougher because, well, 3D Mario level design is less tight than 2D design. By definition, 3D levels must include an extra dimension. That dimension is an extra variable that allows error, player confusion and frustration. The 2D levels prove to be a reminder that, ok, maybe 3D levels are never going to be as sublime as those in 2D.
Some readers of my review hated this analysis. Some said I was criticizing the game for a fault in my playing skills. We can at least all agree on this fact: Super Mario Galaxy 2 begins... as a 2D side-scrolling game. Its designers recognized the simplicity and purity of 2D design — and perhaps the millions more people who bought recent 2D Mario games instead of recent 3D ones — and started the new 3D Mario flat.
The obvious faults of 3D gaming — problematic viewing angles, challenging controls — were the openings that enabled the return of 2D.
The ability to run through an Indiana Jones-style adventure while staring at Lara Croft's rear end may have been a selling point, but that posterior view was, for a time, considered to be a hazardous necessity. Camera angles were a problem. A game set in three dimensions needed to depict the world that spilled forth in front of the game's hero. But a game set in those dimensions would — unless shown from a first-person perspective — have to put its lead character in the way of the player's view. We witnessed the worlds of these games behind the hero.
If the transition of gaming from 2D to 3D was at all like the transition from watching cartoons to watching a movie, we were left with the uncomfortable visual reality that our lead actors were in the middle of the shot, with their back turned to us. Sure, we could turn them to face us, but then we couldn't see where we're sending our hero next.
Camera problems plagued 3D games and alienated those for whom walking a character through a 3D world was just too confusing. In a 2D game you worried only about the character's movement and actions. In a standard 3D game, you had to move the hero with one control stick and, more often than not, control the game's camera angles with a second. That was the video game equivalent of simultaneously tapping a head and rubbing a belly.
Remedies came here and there. Camera control was sometimes taken away from the player (Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto once told me that the advantage of spherical worlds in Super Mario Galaxy was that they allowed for simpler camera angles shot from an overhead camera, decreasing the likelihood of player disorientation). Sometimes, as in the breakthrough 2005 game Resident Evil 4, the lead character was shoved out of the way, positioned at screen-left which lessened the aesthetic problem of having the hero's back be the game's visual focal point. Camera and control challenges remained.
2D was and still is simpler and more pure. 2D gaming is also what many gamer adults grew up with, which means that more than a decade after Super Mario 64, 2D can still be more marketable.
Kensuke Tanabe, a game designer at Nintendo who is now overseeing a 2D revival of Donkey Kong for the Wii this fall, told Kotaku last month in Los Angeles that the runaway popularity of the the 2006 New Super Mario Bros. DS helped revive 2D gaming. "It brought a lot of people back into the fold and all of a sudden a lot of people were playing 2D Mario again," he said. "And some people it seems feel that moving around in a 3D environment can be a little bit difficult for them, though not all players."
Tanabe's Wii game, Donkey Kong Country Returns joins Kirby's Epic Yarn as two of Nintendo's three marquee games for the Wii this holiday season, both set in 2D. He says Nintendo will continue to make games for both the 3D gaming crowd and the 2D crowd. "It's not a single thrust we're pushing for. It's a two-prong approach." The fact that he describes it as a bifurcation highlights the reality of gaming today:
There are 3D gaming people.
And there are 2D gaming people.
Some of them will not cross over.
For years, 3D gaming people may have felt triumphant, but what must they make of one of the claims Nintendo had at this year's E3 gaming expo? Company officials hyped their new Nintendo 3DS which offers that other kind of 3D, the type you usually need glasses for. One advantage of gaming on the 3DS is that it might help people who play a game like Super Mario 64 (that older style of 3D) more accurately judge where their character is standing in his game world.
Using 3D to solve 3D's problems?
No wonder 2D still has a chance to succeed.
Keiji Inafune used to make 2D games. Now, as the top developer at Capcom, he mostly oversees 3D games. Guess what he wants to do again? "Obviously as the creator of Mega Man, one of the more popular side-scrolling series out there, for me [the resurgence of 2D] is a welcome comeback in gaming," he told Kotaku last month. "I knew there was always a certain core audience that likes sidescrollers, but it's nice to see that they're still able to supercharge other people. I think there is a certain sort of gameplay feeling to sidecrollers you can't necessarily get in 3D games. I'm glad they've stuck around and I'm interested in creating some myself in the future."
As movie studios rush to make films in 3D, they do so with the sense that there's money there because there is immersion there. Like many a game company before and after them, the movie studio buys into the idea that the technology that will make something feel more real, more authentic, is what the audience most wants. They make many of today's game developers seem enlightened.
In gaming, for once, it is not all about technology. 3D is a buzz term, but it's not the only goal. Like the filmmakers of the color film era who recognized that there is still an aesthetic virtue to film in black and white, even today's biggest game companies have rediscovered the visual glories and practical advantages to sometimes setting a game in 2D. The old-fashioned 2D look can even still be marshaled to display something that looks cutting edge.
See the stellar graphics of this fall's Kirby's Epic Yarn.
See this spectacular visual gimmick from the next Castlevania game, the latest in a series that has struggled with each attempted transition from 2D to 3D, though a new attempt will again be made late this year.
By year's end, expect a 2D game, Limbo, to be a contender for the best gaming graphics of 2010, the kind of accolade that has been awarded to 3D games for a decade.
The resurgence of 2D as a method for displaying wonderful visuals is another indictment of the imperfect adoption of 3D. There are beautiful 3D video games, but their creators struggle with the same thing their players do, the inability to frame a shot cleanly, to depict a specifically-proportioned scene. 2D design allows developers to retain that artistic command.
Later this summer, Nintendo will release a new Metroid game. The series used to be in 2D, to much acclaim. It switched to 3D several years ago, to skepticism and then more acclaim. The newest Metroid, subtitled Other M, will be a hybrid of sidescrolling 2D-inspired adventure and intermittent 3D perspectives. The game may present the solution, the successful utilization of the best of 2D and 3D. Or it may be a jumble.
It's safer to expect the future of gaming to continue its 2D and 3D split. We know now that 2D is resilient, that it is back from its late-90s winter to enjoy an endless spring. Its relevance has been proven, its appeal paid for by millions.
The flatness of 2D won't turn back the rise of 3D, but the flatness of 2D can no longer be denigrated or dismissed. We are in a world gaga for 3D. But deeper, more immersive is not the equivalent of better. There are 2D people, people. Their favorite worlds are flat — cutting edge and beautiful.